Born in 1952, James Cole received his B.A. from the University of Colorado in 1975 and his J.D. from the University of California-Hastings in 1979. After graduating, he spent 13 years (1979-1992) as a trial lawyer at the Public Integrity Section (PIS) of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), prosecuting cases involving corruption by elected and appointed officials. Cole’s tenure at PIS overlapped with Eric Holder’s employment there from 1976 to 1988. During this period, Cole and Holder (the latter of whom would become President Barack Obama’s Attorney General in 2009) developed a close personal and professional relationship.
Cole eventually became PSI’s Deputy Chief, a position he held from 1989 to 1992. In this post, Cole worked closely with two other future Obama administration lawyers, Thomas Perrelli, who would serve as Associate Attorney General under Holder, and David Margolis, Holder’s Associate Deputy Attorney General.
In 1992, Cole entered private practice at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in Washington DC, where he began his work on white-collar criminal defense. That same year, Cole also joined President Bill Clinton’s transition team.
In 1996, Cole was appointed Special Counsel to the House Ethics Committee investigating Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) for alleged misuse of tax-exempt money for political purposes. The committee’s findings led to a House reprimand and a fine of $300,000. In 1999, the Internal Revenue Service cleared Gingrich’s Peace and Freedom Foundation of misusing tax-exempt money, which was one of the main accusations against Gingrich. Cole, however, refused to retract his charge that Gingrich had broken the tax law.
From 1998 to 2000, Cole served as Chair of the American Bar Association’s White Collar Crime Committee.
In September 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks, Cole condemned the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror, contending that prosecutions related to that war should be adjudicated in civilian courts rather than military tribunals. Writing in the Legal Times, he stated:
“For all the rhetoric about war, the Sept. 11 attacks were criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population, much like the terrorist acts of Timothy McVeigh in blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, or of Omar Abdel-Rahman in the first effort to blow up the World Trade Center. The criminals responsible for these horrible acts were successfully tried and convicted under our criminal justice system, without the need for special procedures that altered traditional due process rights.”
In addition, Cole criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft for undermining the “protections built into our criminal-justice system.”
Also after the September 11th attacks, Cole represented Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, in a lawsuit filed by Motley Rice on behalf of 9/11 families. Prince Naif headed the terror-aligned Al Haramain Islamic Foundation. Between 2002 and 2004, the Treasury Department designated 13 branches of that foundation for terror ties to al Qaeda; in 2008, Treasury extended the terror designation to the entire foundation.
In 2004, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) filed suit against the American International Group (AIG) for its bad accounting practices. The resulting settlement allowed the DOJ and the SEC to assign Cole to monitor AIG. In 2005, AIG hired Cole as an independent investigator reporting back to the government. Cole remained AIG’s independent monitor through the insurance giant’s near collapse in 2008 and the subsequent $182 billion government bailout that saved the company from bankruptcy. During this four-year period, AIG paid Cole and his firm approximately $20 million for their services.
Starting in 2008, Cole began to receive numerous distinctions for his legal work, most notably the Washington, DC Super Lawyers award for three consecutive years from 2008 to 2010. In May 2010, President Obama announced Cole as his nominee for the office of Deputy Attorney General, the number two DOJ position under Eric Holder.
Even before Obama’s announcement, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) attacked the rumored appointment, requesting information about Cole’s role at AIG and stating that “Cole failed to detect an atmosphere of […] laissez faire compliance at the company” which cost taxpayers $182 billion.
GAP continued its attack on Cole for the next three months, criticizing “Cole’s myopia” (for overlooking AIG’s massive debt) and characterizing Cole’s July 2010 testimony during the Senate Judiciary Committee as “misleading, unresponsive and disingenuous.” In addition, on June 15, Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, began a campaign against Cole, citing his legal representation of Prince Naif and his public stance on the war on terror as an ethical conflict-of-interest with his new DOJ appointment.